Morality isn't a crumbling parchment that will fall to dust if we poke at it. It's more like scientific knowledge, which actively benefits from constant testing and refinement.

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The moral panic over transgender rights and drag shows is hitting a fever pitch. In Tennessee, a new law outlaws “male or female impersonators” from performing anywhere a minor might see them, and other red states are likely to pass similar laws.

The language of this law is deliberately vague, chillingly so. What does it mean to “impersonate” another gender?

If a woman wears a tuxedo or a pair of overalls, does that count? What if a man paints his nails or grows his hair long? Can a busybody summon the police if they pass someone on the street and aren’t sure on first glance whether that person is a man or a woman? Does this law require everyone to adhere to the most exaggerated 1950s-style presentation of gender roles—fedoras and mustaches and and drab gray suits for men, floral-print dresses and beehive hairdos and pearl necklaces for women—lest they be found guilty of a crime and thrown into prison?

The more you think about this law, the more the questions multiply. Is it now illegal in Tennessee to screen movies like Mrs. Doubtfire or Tootsie? Or to stage Shakespeare plays as they were originally performed, with male actors playing the female roles? Or to show World War 2 documentaries where American soldiers dressed in drag for entertainment?

The clampdown on all kinds of gender nonconformity is a panic reaction to a change that’s already in progress. It’s a rearguard effort to defend the past at any cost. In the attempt, it does violence to human nature, and tramples on the way that moral progress is always achieved.

A disorganized inheritance

If we wanted to steelman the conservative position advocating these laws, it would go something like this:

The morality we have now—including our idea of gender roles—is a hard-won set of time-tested principles. They’re the foundation our civilization is built on, and we tamper with them at our peril. Like pulling stones out of an arch, you never know which one will bring the whole structure crashing down. Foolish experimentation threatens to break down our standards of right and wrong and unleash anarchy. To prevent this, we have no choice but to defend the moral edifice by any means necessary.

As I said, that’s the steelman version. But even this best-case presentation of the argument has a critical flaw. It assumes that all the moral principles we’ve inherited are equally good and equally necessary.

Ann honest assessment, even from the conservative point of view, would have to concede that there was no past era when morals were flawless. Every era had fads, prejudices and irrational rules that no one today would want to live by. There used to be sumptuary laws that restricted what people could wear based on social class, or coverture laws that treated married women as the property of their husbands, or lèse-majesté laws that made it illegal to insult rulers, or ugly laws that forbade disabled people from appearing in public. All these are gone now, and good riddance.

Our inheritance isn’t a smooth stone arch, but a disorganized and jumbled mess, like an attic full of miscellaneous unlabeled boxes. (Our ancestors really should’ve practiced Swedish death cleaning with their morals.)

Prejudice always comes wrapped in the cloak of respectability. Some of the principles that have survived to our day are enduring, timeless wisdom. Others are no more than the codified superstitions of their era. There’s no reason to treat them as a package deal. Instead, we should look at each one carefully to decide whether it should be passed on or whether it should just be junked.

READ: Morality is a technology

I find it’s helpful to apply “reverse Chesterton’s fence” criteria: when examining a moral rule, we should ask what purpose it originally served. Often, we find that it was created to uphold some long-vanished hierarchy, or to serve the interests of the powerful. These relics of the past can safely be abolished.

For example, Catholic apologists say that priestly celibacy is for the sake of spiritual objectivity, so that a priest can be “unhindered in his preaching, governing, and sanctifying by familial considerations“.

In fact, as the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Garry Wills says, the real reason was so that medieval priests wouldn’t have children who’d claim the right to inherit church property. It was a means for the church to consolidate wealth and power. (Wills also points out that Catholics don’t apply this logic in other cases. For example, why don’t they demand that political candidates be celibate, so they can carry out their duties to the nation without the distraction of a spouse and kids?)

As another example, slavery gave rise to white supremacy, not the other way around. Colonial empires enslaved people and forced them to labor, because they could, and because it was profitable. Only later did they invent the ideas of whiteness and white superiority as a justification for why this was permissible to do.

Questioning old beliefs like these is part of what it means to be a genuinely moral person, rather than an unthinking rule-follower. We shouldn’t blindly accept the notions handed down from the past. We should make them prove their worth if they expect our allegiance.

Crumbling parchment

Rather than a stone arch, a better analogy for conservative morality would be an ancient and brittle piece of parchment: a sacred artifact too fragile to be touched. We can study it from a distance, but don’t dare get too close. If you handle it, it might crumble into dust.

But either way, whether fragile parchment or stone arch, taking this view literally commits a fallacy of reification. Morality isn’t an object. It’s not a foundation we literally stand on or a document we can handle. Morality lives in our minds, in the attitudes we hold and the decisions we make. It’s a living covenant that each generation needs to either reaffirm, modify, or reject.

What else works like this? Here’s a countervailing analogy: morality is an ongoing experiment.

A scientific experiment isn’t something you do once and for all time. You can repeat it whenever you want. Indeed, scientists routinely repeat experiments done by their predecessors, to see if the old results hold up. Sometimes they do, but sometimes they find a mistake, or a complication the previous generation didn’t take into account. They adjust the theory to accommodate the new data, and the enterprise of scientific progress rolls on.

This is the same approach we should take with morality. We shouldn’t take it for granted that we already know everything. We should be ready to question what we believe. Especially, we should be willing to experiment: to push back against restrictive tradition and scrap rules that exist for no good reason.

Like any experiment, some things we try won’t pan out. Some of them may be silly, or excessive, or fads that we’ll look back on with embarrassment. At the same time, others will unearth buried treasure: genuine truths about human nature that had previously gone unrecognized. Either way, trying the experiment is the only way to make progress.

If a moral principle is good and necessary, presumably, there are reasons why this is so, and an experiment will reveal them. On the other hand, if there’s a principle we don’t need, it should be straightforward to show that we can live happily without it.

Experimenting with morality

What kinds of experiments would be fruitful? Recent history raises a few suggestions.

America’s success in welcoming immigrants hints that we should consider open borders: allowing people to live and work where they wish. Quotas and other restrictions are nothing but thinly disguised racial and cultural prejudice.

The successful fight for gay and lesbian rights suggests that love, and society’s recognition of it, doesn’t have to be bounded by sexuality. This naturally leads to contemplation of further rolling back those rigid gender roles and ask what other constraints gender imposes on us that can be thrown out.

The rapid rise of nonbelief indicates that belief in God is unnecessary to be a good person. We should go further with this and ask what other moral rules are solely justified by religion, and therefore disposable.

Or the next moral revolution could come from an unexpected direction. It could be something that nobody foresaw, correcting an injustice so ubiquitous that no one recognized it as such. We’ll never know until it happens. And the only way that it will happen is if we choose to ignore the naysayers and make the experiment for ourselves.

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...